Wednesday, June 1, 2016

QK Round 1: The Ghost and Ms. Clair vs. The Origin of a Fixer

Title: Donns Hill
Entry NicknameThe Ghost and Ms. Clair
Word count: 83K
Genre: Paranormal Mystery


Grief changes you. It can rewire your brain and make you see the world around you through different eyes. For Mackenzie Clair, it awakened her ability to talk to the dead.

Mac is on a mission to reclaim some happiness. After losing her father to cancer and her boyfriend to infidelity, she needs a fresh start. She abandons the city life and relocates to the place where she had been happiest in her youth: Donn’s Hill, a small town in Middle America that’s best known for the séances at its annual Afterlife Festival and an abundance of paranormal activity.

Mac doesn’t get much time to acclimate to small-town living before the ghosts come knocking, forcing her to quickly come to terms with her newly discovered psychic powers. With the help of the ghost-hunting crew of the nationally televised TV show Soul Searchers and a spirited tortoiseshell cat named Striker, Mac becomes bold enough to do things she never imagined possible: investigate hauntings, banish poltergeists, and generally feel happy again.

Unfortunately, in the midst of Mac’s journey of self-discovery, someone is killing off the residents of Donn’s Hill. She learns she’s a magnet for dead bodies, and in the weeks leading to the Afterlife Festival, corpses are piling up. Determined to use her abilities to do some good in the world, Mac must decide whether to leave town for her own safety or stay and try to identify the killer before she winds up joining the ranks of the ghosts wandering the town.

First 250:

Someone was sitting on my bed.

I didn’t know how he had gotten past the locks—I’d made sure the deadbolt was turned and the chain was fastened before I’d gone to bed—but that was a question for later. Right now the more important questions were “Who is he?” and “What does he want from me?”

It couldn’t be anything good. People who want to do good things usually knock.

He smelled foul, like rotting garbage. I felt his weight press down on the right side of the thin mattress. My body wanted to roll toward that lower point, but I held myself in place. I didn’t want to touch whoever it was. I held my breath and strained my ears to hear his breathing.

I heard nothing but the hum of a car passing on the highway.

Several thoughts pinged around inside my skull and crashed into each other. What’s going on? Is he holding his breath too? Are we locked in some kind of silent contest, the loser being the one who passes out?

Taking a chance, I opened one eye a tiny bit, creating a narrow slit between my eyelids. The motel room was pitch-black, thanks to the ancient heavy curtains and my having unplugged the digital alarm clock. Keeping my arm under the covers, I crept my left hand toward the nightstand.

Slowly, I told myself. Don’t make a sound.

Faster! my lungs screamed at me.


Title: Death of a Spider
Entry Nickname: Origin of a Fixer
Word count: 99K
Genre: Legal Thriller


How can lawyer Jimmy Sullivan obtain a key found in a murder victim’s stomach from the police evidence locker? Jimmy has to come up with a solution that crosses yet another line. He’s been crossing them ever since he took on the Harry Miles’ estate. 

When Harry's young widow walks into his office, Jimmy wonders right away if she could be a problem for him. She is a alluring, seemingly vulnerable and needs his help to get what she wants. But when she hands him a sealed letter with coded instructions, the widow becomes the least of his concerns. The letter leads Jimmy to a safety-deposit box containing $100,000 in cash and a plea from Harry to take on not only his legitimate estate. but his off-the-books arrangements.  Jimmy owes Harry from way back, but should he be bound by that debt if he must risk disgrace and disbarment in carrying out Harry's wishes? Jimmy's hands tremble as he riffles his fingers through the stacks of hundreds as he makes up his mind to keep the money and take the case.

Soon Jimmy is drawn into and nearly consumed by the shadow life of a money launderer and serial blackmailer. Working for Harry brings him dead center into the cross hairs of a Chicago mob family, a Detroit gangster and a local Grand Rapids crime syndicate looking to use Jimmy or keep him quiet. With the help of some ethically flexible lawyer acquaintances and an ex-marine bodyguard, Jimmy races to find Harry's secret blackmail book and turn the tables on the gangsters hunting him—or risk ending up in a box like Harry.

First 250 words:

I found out about the death of Harry Miles by text.

My ex-wife and I were squared off across a table at a diner on the east side of Grand Rapids off the Beltline. It wasn’t one of those hidden gem greasy spoons, but it was convenient, and we had never frequented it during our time together. Neutral ground. I was, in my humble estimation, winning our regular weekly argument when I received the text. It threw me off my game.

“What is it?” she asked with a dose of actual concern when I didn’t respond to one of her barbs about my not being able to take care of some bills I had promised to take care of. She was right, of course, about money being a problem, but that wasn’t really what she wanted to argue about. She just couldn’t bring herself to argue about the other thing, and I didn’t want that, either. So, unpaid bills became the main point of contention.

I stared at the text. It was from a blocked number. I had only picked up the phone out of habit when it had beeped. That, and I knew that it would drive Michelle crazy. The message from the unknown texter simply said, Harry Miles died today. And then, as I watched it, trying to figure out what was going on, it buzzed again, and a new message popped up. Just thought you should know…


  1. Replies
    1. The Ghost and Ms. Clair:

      This query hits most of the right notes: We've got a who, what, where, why, and some stakes. The only details you might want to TRY to squeeze in (and length-wise, you don't have a lot of leeway, but I'd try!) are first, a little more about who Mac is as a person. What kind of life did she give up to move to this town? Did she have a career, or was she her father's full-time caregiver, or...? I'm not even really sure how old she is. Second, I'd like to know WHY she is a magnet for dead bodies. Are the deaths happening BECAUSE Mac has moved to town? If so, something to at least hint at that would help to up stakes and tension.

      The first 250 are sharp. Not a lot is physically happening here, but the tension is palpable and the voice and POV have us THERE, in the motel room with your narrator. This is definitely off to a creepy start, and I'm intrigued!


      Origin of a Fixer:

      I'm going to be completely honest, here. The first 250 are amazing. And the query here is very, very rough. First big issue: rhetorical questions. Questions at all in your query. A lot of agents don't like them... and you could use that space to insert more of the amazing voice I see in your 250 into the query.

      Be careful of typos (She is a alluring, seemingly vulnerable), and details like "Jimmy's hands tremble..." The query should give a general overview of the character, premise, and stakes of your story. A specific detail like trembling hands is something for the novel itself, not query or even synopsis.

      Now, the first 250... totally different story. I love the first line, AND the last couple of lines of this segment. They are both well-placed to entice the reader to keep reading. You narrative voice is strong, and I get a sense through your word choice of who this character is, how he feels about himself and his wife, and even a glimpse of the setting, all in a very short amount of time. You've done a great job of dropping the reader right into his head.

      One TINY nitpicky suggestion: The sentence beginning "...she asked with a dose" is a little long and unwieldy. I'd maybe see if you could shorten or break that up, but otherwise, the voice feels spot-on.


      Although I HIGHLY recommend heavy revisions to the query... that is still possible at this point, so I'm voting for the voice that most made me want to read past the first 250.

      Victory to.... ORIGIN OF A FIXER!

    2. The Ghost and Miss Clair: Wow, what a strong query! I feel like I’ve been on a journey, which is great, but perhaps you’ve shared too much? Not sure, I need to read your 250 now.

      I’ve got nothing constructive, I want to read more! Nice job!

      Origin of a Fixer: Try and change your first sentence, questions are never good in queries! I do feel your query could use some tightening, but overall it’s very well done with a clear sense of story and stakes.

      Nice opening! I wonder if it’s too much telling, telling the reader what’s going on with Michelle, rather than showing us the dynamics between the two. But, if you stop to explain, it takes longer to get to the text message. Something to consider.

      Victory to The Ghost and Miss Clair!

    3. Wow! I think this is one of the toughest matchups in this round.

      The Ghost and Ms. Clair
      Okay, first of all, is there really such thing as the Afterlife Festival. If so, how do I get tickets? In all seriousness, I agree with the other judges that the query is really solid. If I were to make any change, it would be to do away with the second person sentences at the beginning of the query which, to me, felt out of sync with the rest. In the 250, I love the way that we get started right in the middle of some tense action and I love the beats of humor that are present. I bet this is a book that is both fun and thrilling. That being said, I did have questions. The biggest of which is, if the character has her eyes closed, why is the person on the bed a he?

      Origin of a Fixer
      I’m pretty much of the same mind as Mallory Pike here. The first 250 were fantastic. I especially loved the line at the end. Just thought you should know. That’s killer and also a great end to the entry. That being said the query read pretty rough to me. The first paragraph is confusing since it doesn’t really dovetail into the later ones. For me, the query was not especially effective in communicating two major things – conflict and cost. Yes, I understand that Harry’s case puts Jimmy in personal jeopardy. But what is the case really about? Why does Jimmy agree to be involved? Does Harry’s widow have a major role in the book? She’s briefly mentioned and then not discussed again.

      Based on the fact that both entries were strong, but the query for The Ghost and Ms. Clair left me with a better understanding of what to expect, I vote The Ghost and Ms. Clair.


      I’ve got nothing. The query is fantastic. The first 250 are engaging, well written . . . I don’t even have my usual nitpick of suggesting unnecessary words that can be cut. YOU SHOULD BE QUERYING. RIGHT NOW. DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200. GO. QUERY.


      The query is a bit muddled to me. The questions turn me off a lot because I feel like the point can be made better without them.

      For the 250, like my comments in other entries, I’m not a fan of opening with a summary of past events. I’d rather be with the MC in the present, seeing him react to a situation where his personality can shine through. The way it’s written now, the first sentence tells us what happens, almost like a thesis sentence, and then the paragraph supports that thesis with a summary. I’m not saying the first 250 isn’t well written—it is. It’s just not engaging for me. I’m wondering if it’s be more engaging if you started with the first sentence of the third paragraph and then stay with Harry as he reads the text.

      There’s parts of ORIGIN OF A FIXER I like, but Miss Clair is just so well done . . .


    5. The Ghost and Miss Clair:

      Other than rephrasing or deleting the first sentence as others have suggested, this query is solid. You've got character, conflict, stakes and a clear connection to the first 250. Good voice in the first 250, but I wonder if you can trim it a little so we can get to the reveal - what does she see when the light turns on? Granted, I'm hooked an want to know, so it's done it's job already, but a little more - such as her reaction to what she sees - could be even more engaging.

      Origin of a Fixer:

      First 250 are strong, especially the clincher there at the end. There are some repetitive words/phrases you could tweak (e.g., take care of, take care of in the second paragraph, and "about". I also echo the advice that if there's a way to put us more directly in the convo (versus telling us about it), and still save that clincher at the end, I'd recommend. The Query needs some work. Rhetorical questions are generally disfavored and this gets muddled in a summary of details. Drill down to your MC's character, conflict and stakes. Big picture. Save the nitty gritty for the manuscript.

      Victory to The Ghost and Miss Clair!

  2. THE GHOST & MRS CLAIR: Your query is very clear and engaging, but it was the 250 that really pulled me in. Though I sometimes have trouble getting into a first person narrative, I felt like I was right there in that dingy hotel room, feeling the MC's fear. I hope whatever she was reaching for helps her out of the situation!

    ORIGIN OF A FIXER: I was really confused by this query. In the first sentence, it references a key which is never brought up again. The second paragraph, to me, reads like a story excerpt and, aside from introducing the widow, doesn't seem to go anywhere. The stakes in the last paragraph are clear, but I'd like to see how the key fits into them.

    The 250, on the other hand, is very strong and showcases a great voice. The MC's character is quickly developed, and the situation between the ex's comes across in a very captivating way. I liked it much better than the query.

    Good luck to both of you!

  3. The Ghost and Ms. Clair

    I really liked Mac and her voice. You made me both laugh AND feel nervous for her in the first 250 pages. Did I miss it or do you say what’s on the nightstand? I’m assuming a weapon of some kind but you don’t say. You might want to clarify.

    I enjoyed your query. I think it does great giving us her backstory and the paranormal element. But I wanted a bit more about the mystery. Is there a way for you go mention the murders in the first paragraph? Yes I know that the first paragraph is great but if I didn’t know it was a mystery, I would probably think it was more Women’s Fiction about a woman heading home to deal with grief. I also don’t think you need the “She learns she’s a magnet for dead bodies.” You already allude to that in the earlier paragraphs.

    Origin of a Fixer

    You do a great job setting up the stakes. Jimmy is in some deep you-know-what! I’m definitely intrigued. My bump with the query is that sometimes it felt too much like pages. Especially this line: “Jimmy's hands tremble as he riffles his fingers through the stacks of hundreds as he makes up his mind to keep the money and take the case.”

    I love the opening line of the pages and that he finds out during his weekly argument date with his ex. (It’s a great detail.) However, having so much information about his relationship takes a bit of the gas out of the main story: some random texted him about Harry dying. It’ll be even stronger if you take out this section: “She was right, of course, about money being a problem, but that wasn’t really what she wanted to argue about. She just couldn’t bring herself to argue about the other thing, and I didn’t want that, either. So, unpaid bills became the main point of contention.”

    I know I sound like a broken record when I say it’s a tough decision. Like I spent a good two minutes going back and forth and silently cursing the Query Kombat hosts out for making me do this. I would read both of these, but going to say…

    VICTORY TO: The Ghost and Ms. Clair

  4. Wow. Glad I am not a judge.

    The Ghost and Ms. Clair--Love the voice in the query and the first 250. If you replaced your "to be" verbs, you would tighten the query and make it even more compelling. Love, love, love the first line of the 250. How could anyone not want to keep reading:) Well done.

    Origin of a Fixer--the query needs a little trim starting with the question that is the first sentence. It's a great idea/dilemma, but you want to make it a statement. Trim some of the detail in the query. The first 250 have a great voice that sucks the reader in.

  5. The Ghost and Ms. Clair - Love the concept pitched in the query. Love the writing/tension communicated in the first 250. I did struggle with it from a plot believability standpoint - if I woke up in a dark room and someone was sitting on my bed, I think it would be a natural reaction to jump up immediately screaming, not lay there having a rational conversation with myself. It is possible the character has already had paranormal experiences and is used to this - however some of her thoughts lead me to believe this is not the case. The door being locked, the question about the lack of breathing. Regardless, it sucked me in and I would keep reading to find out the answers to my questions!

    Origin of a Fixer - first sentence and the paragraph that follows it are fantastic. But the rest of the 250 words, as well as the query, can use some refinement as noted by commenters above.

    Nice work you guys!

  6. The Ghost and Ms Clair: Loved the query. I might have changed the order to "best known for an abundance of paranormal activity and especially the seances at its annual Afterlife Festival." Puts a little more emphasis on the latter. Also, "televised TV show" could be shortened as it's redundant. First 250, loved it as well but I also wondered how you could know it was a guy, except maybe from the smell :) Perhaps allude to her getting a hunch it "felt" like a guy since she's perceptive. Great suspense! This is definitely one I'd love to read more of!

    Origin of a Fixer: Query seemed a little loose, like widow's description not needed except for the letter she hands over. Maybe change question in second paragraph into open-ended sentence instead. Loved the last sentence. First 250, excellent... Love "squared off." Only teeny tiny thing is I think you have to know a blocked number in order to block it, so Unknown or Private would seem more accurate.Other than that, great voice. This is also a novel I'd be interested in.

    Ditto on above comment of "I'm glad I'm not a judge!"

  7. The Ghost and Ms. Clair:

    I really enjoyed your query! I would love to read this book. My only thought is that the first couple of sentences were a little off-putting because they were in 2nd person. Could you maybe re-arrange it so that you're opening with your MC first?

    For your first 250, I really enjoyed it! I already enjoyed your character right from the start. I only questioned why she didn't react with more fear? Does she know he's a ghost (also I agree with the above comment about how she knows it's a guy)? I think she would be wayyyyy more freaked out.

    Origin of a Fixer:

    I got a little turned around in your query. Could you maybe trim out the Harry's widow part (since she doesn't seem to be a big character from the query) and elaborate more on the stakes here? I think it's really just your second paragraph that is throwing things off. Your last paragraph really flows well.

    Seriously loved your first 250. Don't have much to add there! Opening with the text message works so, so well.

  8. The Ghost and Ms. Clair
    Query: I love the concept! The query makes me want to read the book. Addressing the reader as "you" in the first two sentences feels awkward -- I'd reword it to the regular 3rd person. (You may not even need the first paragraph.) "Magnet for dead bodies" makes me think that, wherever she goes, people will die. If that's not accurate, you may want to reword it.
    First 250: Great suspense and use of descriptive details! A few things -- The second paragraph slows the action down a bit. "I'd made sure" is filter. The sentence that starts "Right now..." isn't really necessary -- the reader would instinctively assume that those are the important questions. Also, I'd let the reader know as soon as you can that the speaker is lying in bed. I didn't realize that until the fourth paragraph.

    Origin of a Fixer
    Query: If you're going to use a hypothetical question in a query, I'd try to stick with just one. You could probably cut the last two sentences of the second paragraph. If the widow isn't actually a big plot point, you may want to cut her out of the query -- it feels a bit like a bait and switch when you introduce her alluringly and then say she's actually the least of his problems. Also, if this is set in the present day, you might want to up the ante, $$$-wise -- 100K isn't a TON of money.
    First 250: I love the voice. Honestly, the first 250 are much better than the query. One thing -- in the last paragraph, the phrases "from the unknown texter simply" and "trying to figure out what was going on" aren't really necessary.

  9. Not much to add, but here it goes:

    The Ghost and Ms. Clair

    Query: Initial response: Ooh! People talking to dead. Love! (reads second paragraph while rubbing hands together in anticipation) this is getting good.

    Ok, I really liked this query. It was simple and straightforward to read and I liked the premise. Can’t wait to see this in print!

    First 250:
    Good first line. I question whether she would be this calm, though, in a real situation. It feels more drawn out than I would expect.

    The Origin of a Fixer

    Query: As others have pointed out, typos and questions. Strong concept, but the query has a lot going on.

    Voice: Strong opening placing us right in the context of an angry former couple and how work intrudes. Good job! I would keep reading.

  10. GHOST
    Query: Good setup to establish Mac’s power. This query is great, setting up the stakes and setting well. Love the idea of a reality show and a small town with an Afterlife Festival. These two things alone would make me want to read pages.

    250 - This is fantastic. Effectively creepy with the whole bed scene. I wouldn’t change anything here.

    Query: As others said, I’d get rid of rhetorical questions and address typos. I do like the opening hook though, with the idea of having to open a stomach to get the key. It shows Jimmy’s character and gives us a hint that he’s done this sort of thing since getting involved with Harry’s estate. I think the second paragraph works until “Jimmy owes Harry…” These last few sentences could be tightened up (and remove rhetorical question) and rewritten more clearly (as it is, the wording is confusing). There’s a lot going on with this and the final paragraph, and you might want to scale some of the subplots/details back so it’s not overwhelming (ie. lawyer acquaintances, ex-marine bodyguard, money launderer, serial blackmailer, Chicago mob family, Detroit gangster, Grand Rapids crime syndicate … this is a LOT of characters introduced in the paragraph).

    250: Nice hook! You establish setting very well with the restaurant and getting the text. I like how you get the book started. I like the voice and it sucks me in right away.

  11. The Ghost: Awesome stuff. The first line of your 250 made me sit up and want to keep reading. This may just be me so take it with a grain of salt, but I would get rid of the second line of your query. I think it would make your opening punchier and sharper. We don't really need to know what grief does to others, only what it does to her!

    Fixer: I like the concept here and I really liked the first line of your 250! The rest felt a bit wordy, though. There are some good and strong ideas here; I think you just need to do some editing to make sure it flows as smoothly as possible.

  12. The Ghost and Ms. Clair

    Very interesting concept introduced in the query. And a crisply written one at that. Well done!

    WOW. Some wonderful writing in these first 250 words. Though given a strange man is sitting on her bed, she seems way to composed. Almost clinical. Wouldn't someone be freaked out? If she's maintaining her composure, is she doing it out of confidence or abject fear? I didn't get a strong sense of either.

    Origin of a Fixer

    Judges and hosts have been clear about their thoughts regarding rhetorical questions. Perhaps the ones in this query should be dispositioned accordingly. Comma between "estate" and "but" instead of a period? His hands tremble as he paws at the monety as he makes up his mind--"as" connects too many things together that probably didn't happen simultaneously. OK perhaps for his hands to tremble as he paws at the money, then a full stop before telling us he's made up his mind. Oh! A Michigan connection! I'm a Michigander expat and always glad to see my home turf get a little love (albeit making me crave Faygo Rock 'n Rye.) "Ethically flexible"? *SNORT* Love that line! And the first 250 is a great start in our getting to know Jimmy and what makes him tick.